BY DOUG YOUNG | FROM THE MARCH/APRIL 2019 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR
Whether you’d like to release an album, share music with friends, or just capture your practice sessions to evaluate your performance, recording is an important part of your musical journey.
Although recording used to mean going to a studio, you can now achieve professional-quality results at home with a modest amount of gear. In this article, we’ll look at tools and techniques for home recording, focusing on the acoustic guitar. Your music may involve other instruments or vocals, but naturally, as guitarists, we want the guitar to sound great, whether it’s just a small part of larger ensemble or the featured instrument.
GETTING STARTED—WHAT YOU NEED
Recording yourself requires some gear, and these days, virtually all recording setups use digital technology. All digital recording systems consist of a similar signal chain: microphone, preamp, analog-to-digital converter, an actual digital recorder, and a disk drive to store the recording. The simplest—and often least expensive—recording setups provide all those pieces in a single device, while at the opposite extreme, you could put together a computer-based system that mixes hardware and software, and that contains of each of those pieces individually.
For simply capturing practice sessions or lessons, it’s hard to beat an all-in-one recorder, such as the Zoom H1n ($120). With built-in mics and one-button recording, these devices are perfect for cases where ease-of-use is the highest priority, but are still capable of good sounding recordings. For the next step up, portable recorders like the Zoom H5 ($280) or Tascam DR-40 ($163) allow you to use external mics while still offering one-button operation. External microphones usually produce higher sound quality, and also allow more flexibility in mic placement—critical for capturing a good guitar sound. Another simple option is to leverage your smart phone. Attachable microphones, such as the Shure MV88 (iOS devices, $129) can improve the sound quality, and apps are available that can turn your phone or tablet into a full-fledged studio. Check out Garage-Band (free) or Auria ($25) for iOS devices, or Audio Evolution Mobile Studio ($6.99) for Android. These approaches work best for solo performers or situations where you can at least record all performers at once.
For more flexibility and possibly better sound quality, you might use a system consisting of a laptop, recording software like Garage-Band (Mac) or Audacity (PC), and a USB or Thunderbolt audio interface like the two channel PreSonus AudioBox ($100) or Apogee Duet ($650), along with one or two microphones.
Another option is to skip the recording interface by using a USB mic that can be plugged directly into the computer. USB mics come in a wide price range, from the Blue Yeti ($119) to the Neumann TLM103-D ($1,600).
For more complex recording scenarios, such as recording multiple instruments at once, step up to multi-channel computer interfaces like the PreSonus Studio 192 ($800), MOTU 8M ($1,495), or Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt ($2,500). Popular software for recording more complex projects includes Pro Tools (various price points), Logic Pro (Mac only, $200), and Steinberg Cubase ($99-$550).
It can be tempting to use a guitar pickup to record, but microphones almost always result in more professional-sounding recordings. Condenser microphones with a cardioid (directional) pattern are the most frequent choice for recording acoustic guitar. While some legendary microphones come with jaw-dropping price tags, you can get excellent results with inexpensive options like the Audio-Technica AT-2020 or AT-2021 ($100). For higher budgets, consider the Shure SM81 ($350), or Neumann KM184 ($850). Although it’s possible to get a good sound with a single mic, two mics allow you to record in stereo. When planning your budget, don’t forget that you will need mic stands and cables as well—these add up!
Critical listening and evaluating your results are key to creating a good recording. Although home stereo systems are fine for listening to music, studio monitors are designed to reveal the details of your recording, allowing you to make informed decisions about everything from mic placement to the final mix. Monitors play such an important role that it’s worth allocating a hefty part of your budget to them. KRK’s ROKIT 5 speakers ($150 each) are popular budget speakers. Stepping up a bit, you might consider ADAM Audio’s A7X7 ($750 each) or Mackie’s HR824mk2 ($700 each).
It can be challenging to produce quality mixes using headphones, but it’s good to at least check your mixes with them, since many people listen to music with headphones. Open-back headphones, like Beyerdynamic’s DT 990 Pro ($180), are a good choice when mixing. Closed-back headphones, which help isolate the sound from sensitive microphones, are critical if you plan to overdub (add a part to previously-recorded tracks). Sony’s MDR-7506 ($95) are ubiquitous in studios, but there are many others.
PUT THAT GEAR TO WORK
Whether you’re recording a solo guitar piece or a full band, a bit of planning can go a long way toward ensuring a good recording. The more instruments or musical parts you have, the more you have to think about the logistics. The basic steps are tracking (actually recording), editing, mixing, and mastering. It’s not unusual to record and edit the parts yourself and then take your tracks to a professional studio to mix and master. A pro studio will have access to better tools—from monitors to reverbs and processors—than you are likely to have at home, and it can actually be more cost-effective to pay an experienced mixing engineer for their time than to buy the gear involved. Let’s consider each step of the process.
The first step is capturing your guitar part. If you’re recording solo guitar, it’s a good idea to play the tune all the way through several times. It’s nice to strive for perfection—and gratifying if it happens!—but as long as you get at least one take that is mostly solid and has a good feel, you can fix small problems by editing, pulling pieces from another take if needed. You can also record short sections that can be patched in when editing. When recording, try to avoid extraneous noises—fight the tendency to tap your foot, for example, unless you want it to be heard on the recording. Mics tend to capture every little noise, so try to minimize movement while playing, be careful with heavy breathing, and remember to leave a few seconds of silence before you start and at the end, while you wait for final notes to die out.
If multiple instruments or vocals are involved, things get more complex. If you are recording guitar and vocals, for example, you’ll need to decide if you want to record them together or record the guitar first and overdub the vocal. You may be more comfortable singing and playing at the same time, but this approach limits your options when mixing and editing. Even if you record vocals and guitar to separate tracks using different mics, the sound of each will “bleed” into the other tracks. Recording the guitar part alone, and then overdubbing the vocal, may help create a more professional sound. If you’d like to keep a steady tempo—especially important if you plan to overdub additional instruments—you may want to record to a click track, basically a metronome that you can hear in your headphones. If you are recording with a band, consider recording the instruments that form the basis of the groove first—that may be a rhythm guitar part, but it might also be drums or bass. Once the foundation is firm, you can proceed to overdub everything else by listening to the rhythm track in headphones. Playing well while listening to a click does require some practice, but is often helpful, even for a solo guitar piece. Practicing with a metronome in the days leading up to the recording can also be very effective, even if you choose to not record with a click.
One benefit of modern digital recording software is that recordings can be edited easily. In the simplest case, editing may consist of simply trimming off extra space before and after the song. However, it is also possible to replace sections, even individual notes, alter timing, and remove noises like chair squeaks or car horns—perhaps allowing you to save a great performance marred by a small glitch. Successful editing depends on being able to record multiple takes consistently. Changes in volume level, tempo, intonation, or even shifting in your chair can change the sound enough that the edit point becomes obvious to the listener.
Once all tracks are complete, the next step is the mix—basically setting relative levels between instruments, and applying EQ and effects such as reverb. This may be a simple step: For solo guitar, mixing might consist of just adding a little reverb, while for guitar with vocals, your focus might be on adjusting the relative volume levels.
With more complex instrumentation, mixing may involve fading parts in and out, adjusting levels between instruments as the song progresses to bring out certain parts, and so on.
It’s a good idea to listen to your mixes on a variety of playback systems, to make sure the music sounds good in the car, on your home stereo, on your iPod or smart phone, or wherever.
For commercial releases, it is typical to send your final mix to a mastering engineer to finish the project. A mastering engineer brings an experienced ear to your mix and can help ensure you sound your best wherever your music is played by applying EQ, adjusting levels, and more.
Although many mastering engineers can handle diverse styles, you might look at credits on your favorite CDs to get ideas of engineers with experience in your genre of music.
For more casual releases of individual songs, you may not need the mastering step. There are also software packages, like iZotope Ozone ($129 to $499), that allow you to do some mastering tasks yourself. For CD releases, you also need software that can burn multiple tracks to a CD, such as Wavelab ($99) or DSP-Quatro ($99). Many CD manufacturers also offer mastering packages that may range from simply sequencing your tunes to full-service offerings.
Recording can be a lot of work, but is ultimately rewarding. A good performance captured on a recording is an everlasting testament to your musical vision, an achievement you can be proud of. Home recording also provides a special feeling that comes from being in total artistic control of the process, knowing that you created everything yourself. Any mistakes or challenges along the way will be forgotten in the long run, and you’ll be left with what matters most—the music!
ACOUSTICS: ROOM TREATMENT
Room acoustics present one of the biggest challenges to recording acoustic guitar at home. Poor room acoustics—usually caused by hard surfaces that produce reflections (faint echoes)—can make your recordings sound weak and distant, or cause certain notes to be louder than others. This is one area where pro studios have an edge over the home studio, and creating a studio-quality acoustic environment can be prohibitively invasive and expensive to do at home.
For acoustic guitar, however, it is usually possible to get good recordings in a typical furnished room. A portable recording system can make it easy to try different locations to identify the best-sounding room in your house. Larger rooms are often better than small rooms, so you might favor the living room or a den over a spare bedroom. Furniture, drapes, and even bookcases can help break up reflections.
There are also several products—from panels designed to hang on walls, to temporary baffles that create a local acoustic space around your guitar—that help with room acoustics. A web search for “acoustic panels” will turn up many options. Beware that folklore solutions like egg cartons are almost entirely useless, and some others, such as acoustic foam, look pretty but usually don’t fully address the issues.
Mic placement has arguably the largest impact on your recorded guitar sound. If your recording involves multiple instruments, you may want to record the guitar in mono, using a single mic. A good starting point is to aim the mic at the point where the neck meets the body. However, don’t be afraid to try other locations. Listen with headphones while moving the mic around—every guitar tends to have its own sweet spot. Audio engineers sometimes recommend placing microphones two or three feet away from a guitar to capture its true character, which works well in rooms with ideal acoustics. For home recording, however, you will probably get better results by placing a mic 12 inches or less from your guitar. The closer the mic is to your guitar, the louder the guitar will be relative to the room, which helps alleviate less-than optimal room acoustics. Cardioid mics do exhibit a phenomenon known as “proximity effect” that produces more bass as you move closer to the sound source, so experiment to find the right balance.
When guitar is the featured instrument, recording in stereo can be very effective. One common stereo mic setup is known as “XY”: Place the mic capsules as close together as possible, with the mics at approximately a 90-degree angle from each other. Start by aiming the pair at the neck/body joint, adjusting the location until you get a sound you like, and the sound is balanced between left and right. Another useful location is the center of the guitar, directly above (not directly in front of) the sound hole, roughly aligned with the waist of the guitar.
Another common stereo mic placement is known as “spaced pairs.” Here, one mic is aimed at the neck/body joint, and the other around the bridge. Again, experiment with both exact placement and distance until you dial-in the balance and the tone you want.
When recording in stereo, you can record each mic to a different track, and pan one mic left, and the other to the right, or your software may support stereo tracks that automatically handle the panning for you. Consult the manual for your recording software for options.
Levels are also important. With digital recording, it is not necessary to record at maximum volume levels, and it’s better to leave plenty of headroom. You can easily raise the level of a quiet recording when mixing, but a note that unexpectedly exceeds the maximum threshold will distort in a way that is all but impossible to fix.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RECORDING
Most musicians who have been in the recording studio have experienced “red light fever,” a sudden case of nerves as soon as the recording starts. The cure is usually experience.
Recording often enough that you can relax and play your best, knowing that you can edit to fix small mistakes, and remembering that you have the freedom to re-record as many times as you want can help calm your nerves.
Part of the problem is that recording often feels like you are playing under a microscope. Minor intonation problems with your guitar, as well as squeaks and noises you make while playing, suddenly loom large.
You may need to adjust your playing style—an aggressive percussive technique that is a crowdpleaser when playing live may not sound as good on a recording. Many performers play faster in live performances, perhaps rushing, which can produce excitement and energy in front of an audience. We usually expect a recording to be a bit more precise, while at the same time capturing a musical performance with an appropriate amount of energy.
A big benefit of home recording is that you can work through these issues on your own time, without feeling like other musicians or engineers are passing judgement, and without the feeling that the clock is ticking on expensive studio time.
DEALING WITH NOISE
Noise, not to be confused with room acoustics, presents one of the biggest challenges for home recording. Obstacles range from the neighbor’s dog barking or the kids watching TV in the next room to air conditioning or even the fan in the computer you are using to record. Sound from cars, airplanes, leaf blowers, and more are unavoidable in urban environments. One solution to many of these problems is to record at quiet times of the day—for example, late at night after others in the household have powered down for the evening.
The more relaxed nature of home recording can also be a benefit. If your neighbor roars out in his motorcycle during a recording, just do it again. Consider turning off the furnace or air while recording— after warning your housemates. When all else fails, software like iZotope Elements ($129) or SoundSoap ($149) can do an impressive job of removing anything from computer fan noise to chair squeaks without damaging your recording.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.